How Hot Rods Invaded the Pebble Beach Concours

A look at this year’s field, plus the history of hot rods at the world’s most prestigious car show.

Aaron GoldwriterRory JurneckaphotographerErik Johnsonphotographer

The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is the world's most prestigious car show. Only the finest classic vehicles are invited to attend, and after being shown on the lawn, they are not allowed to return for another 10 years. So what's up with this year's field of hot rods?

The credit—or blame, depending on your opinion—goes to well-known car collector Bruce Meyer, whose Doane Spencer Roadster won the inaugural hot-rod class in 1997 and whose Nickel Roadster competed this year. (The class was won by Ross and Beth Myers's blue 1922 Norm Grabowski "Kookie Kar" roadster pickup pictured above; the Nickel took third in class and won the Dean Batchelor Trophy for preservation.)

"In the late '80s I started showing at Pebble Beach," Meyer recalls. "I brought a Duesenberg. They would only pay attention to antiques, brass cars, a few Ferraris, and classic cars. Having grown up in the 1940s, I know how important hot-rodding is to the engineering, innovation, and craftsmanship of the cars today. It all started with hot rods.

"Hot-rodding was really the genesis of all automotive enthusiasm and innovation in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and even today," he continues. "Guys like Bob Bondurant, Phil Remington, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby—they all started in hot-rodding, because that was the place where you expressed your automotive love and talent and passion. I've made it a real mission over the last 30 years to do absolutely everything within my power to recognize hot-rodding for what it is—the innovation, the ingenuity.

"For literally 10 years, I set about a one-man campaign to get the powers that be at Pebble Beach to recognize hot rods for their importance in history. Finally, I broke them down. Lorin Tryon [co-chair of the Concours] sent me a fax that said, 'Are you ready for this?? [We're doing] a one-shot category for the important and historic rods.' "

As the owner of 10 '32 Ford hot rods—including the Doane Spencer car (which you can see in this story) that's widely regarded as the most significant Deuce ever built—Meyer was eager to enter. Since that would disqualify him from judging, noted automotive historian, writer, and concours judge Ken Gross stepped in. "I volunteered to be the curator, so to speak, and pull the cars together and be the chief judge," Gross recalls. He's held that position ever since.

With the 1997 hot-rod class intended to be a one-off, "They literally put us at the bitter end of Pebble Beach," Meyer remembers. "The farthest south you could go without being in the water. They didn't want to feature us because they didn't want to dumb down the show, so they put us way, way down at the south end. Well, it turned out the south end was where everyone wanted to be. It was a massive success. They realized that hot-rodding is not for the Hell's Angels type or the greasy 1950s guys like me. It really is something that people can appreciate and admire. They decided it was so successful they'd do it again. They've come back [almost] every two years with another theme: Roadsters, Bonneville, race cars, custom cars. They've done a great job of recognizing that era."

Gross tells a story that illustrates how Pebble embraced hot rods. "For 1997," he remembers, "John Clinard of Ford commissioned a bunch of leather jackets with flames on the sleeves. The design on the back had a hot rod, of course, and said 'The American Hot Rod, Sizzlin' at Pebble.' Really wild-looking. He gave them to several people, and I saw [Pebble Beach co-chair Jules "J" Heumann] wearing this jacket. J is a Hispano-Suiza guy, a very traditional classic-car enthusiast, and I walked up to him and said, 'J, two years ago you didn't know a hot rod from a hot dog. And now look at you!' He said, 'You know, I thought about it, and if we can't acknowledge the role in automotive history that these cars have had, then we're in the wrong business.' I thought that was terrific."

While hot rods have been a success for Pebble, Gross feels that recognition from the show has also been good for the hot-rod world. "I believe it's encouraged people to seek out and find great historic hot rods and either preserve them or restore them. The same thing happened when Steve Earle set up the Monterey Historic [races], and personally I'm delighted. It isn't about the value of these cars as much as it is that they deserve to be preserved."

Pebble Beach is known for highlighting the best of the best, so what parameters do the judges look for in a hot rod?

"First of all, it's all about engineering," explains Gross. "A car that's well thought out, true to a theme, that was historically important back in the day. It doesn't necessarily have to have been on the cover of a magazine"—the theme of this year's class—"but it has to be a car that was featured.

"You want a car that makes a mechanical statement, and you want a car that makes a visual statement. Hot rods aren't assembled, they're built, which means you can do a lot of things to a '32 Ford that Henry Ford didn't do on the assembly line. When you see some of these cars that are perfectly proportioned, it's because there's been some pie-cutting and frame-altering and body modifications to get the car to be as perfect as it can be. They didn't come from the factory that way.

"It also has to be correct to the period. We judge these cars the way they were built, as we do with race cars. You pick a point in time and you present the car the way it was, either to a vintage photograph or the cover of a magazine or a feature article."

Thanks to the efforts of Meyer, Gross, and the organizers of the Concours d'Elegance, hot rods get the exposure they deserve.

"I look at hot-rodding as a pure American art form," Meyer says. "As purely American as baseball and apple pie and jazz. Those are all American art forms, and I think hot-rodding is right there, every bit as or more important."

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